The best thing about growing up in the country, is the imagination that went into making our own amusement. In the summertime, nearly every parish had a 'Field Day'. The whole community would gather for a day of exotic events, including, Welly Throwing, Hay Bale Tossing, Wife Carrying, and of course the Donkey Derby. In the spring, many communities ran 'Bring and Buy' or 'Cake Sales' in the parish hall. These events were primarily to raise funds for charities and social funds, but also provided an opportunity for everyone to get together and have a bit of fun. Local people would donate produce, only to buy back those donated by others. When Father Tom came to our parish, the 'Bring and Buy' day was not exactly a thriving success. Father Tom suggested incorporating some of the more popular 'Field Day' games, into the event, in order to bolster the numbers.
"I can see ‘Set Dancing’ or the 'Clothes Peg Hanging' working, perhaps even the 'Ball in the Churn' but if you start flinging Wellington boots and bales of hay around the parish hall, not a window will be left," said Sergeant Kelly, during the first committee meeting. Not willing to be thwarted at the first hurdle, Father Tom asked "What about a Derby?"
"A dozen donkeys, shitting all over the place? You've got to be joking, Father!" cried Mary Byrne, who cleaned the hall each week.
"You're quite right, Mary. Donkeys would be far too big, let’s try something smaller, something that will get the kids involved. What about bunny rabbits?" suggested Father Tom? When Father Tom had a vision, not much was going to stand in his way. At last, he convinced the committee to give it a go by asking, "What's the worst that could happen?"
That was how the inaugural 'Bunny Derby' came to be run in our parish hall. The indoor games were a great success. Indeed, the ‘Bunny Derby’ was the highlight of the day. On that first year, the children supplied all the rabbits. By the second year, many adults were in on the game. The racetrack was made out of hay bales, about thirty feet long. The traps were upside down cardboard boxes. The Bunny Derby rules were super simple, the first bunny to hop into the end zone was the winner. Owners could encourage the rabbit, but no pushing or poking. The winner was awarded a plastic trophy to grace their mantelpiece. The 'Bunny Derby' was soon one of the most anticipated events of any year.
There was consternation a few of years ago when Podge Carroll entered a wild hare in the race. The hare took off like greased lightning, as soon as the trap was lifted. He cleared the length of the track in a split second, vaulting the bale wall at the end, like it wasn’t even there. It dashed among the crowd, drawing yelps from women wherever he went, and laughter from everyone else. In the end, the hare made a break for freedom through a closed window. Thankfully, it knocked itself senseless, rather than breaking the glass. When the terrified animal had been captured, and released, Father Tom announced that the hare was disqualified (as it was not a bunny), and banned Podge from entering the race ever again. That year saw Ian Barry's rabbit, Snowball, take the trophy home for the first time, and she had continued to dominate the event ever since.
Father Tom was amazed to see how many of the men came along for these races each year. They all seemed to get into the spirit of the thing, shouting on their favourites with great gusto. By the time the winner hopped its little fluffy tail over the finish line, there were shouts of triumph amid mutterings of disappointment. Father Tom suspected there may be betting going on, when he saw Pa O'Conner, the local publican, handing out cash to men gathered around the tea and bun table.
Last year, as the excitement began to build towards the race, it was clear the bunny to beat was Snowball. With a red hot favourite on the card, the betting book had seen little action. Ian Barry was in the pub, basking in the reflected glow of his rabbit’s skills, when things took an unexpected turn. Ian had been propping up the bar in O'Conner's for several hours, boasting to anyone that would listen.
"There is no rabbit to beat Snowball, this year," Ian slurred, for the umpteenth time. Pa O'Conner was wiping glasses behind the counter, and threw his eyes to heaven. "I'm telling you Pa, put your money on my Snowball. It will be doubled in no time." Barry managed to miss his mouth with his pint of Guinness, and spilled beer down his shirt.
"Would you ever shut up about that fucking rabbit? You’d swear it was Red Rum," snapped Terrance McCarthy, from the end of the bar. Terrance thought Ian was a blow-hole, with way too much to say for himself. A few years back, Ian had objected to an extension Terrance wanted to build. It was a slight that had never been forgotten.
"What would you know about it, McCarthy? You don't even own a rabbit."
"I know more about animals than you ever will, and that includes bloody rabbits," Terrance snarled into his pint.
"You're all talk," needled Ian.
It was one stinging comment too many for Terrance. "€100 that my rabbit beats yours."
"You don't have a rabbit!"
"I'll get a bloody rabbit, is it a bet or not?"
"Okay - but I want to see your rabbit before the race," said Ian. The size of the bet he’d just agreed to, must have begun to loom large through the haze of beer, if the worry in his eyes was anything to go by.
"Fair enough, this night next week," said Terrance, finishing his pint in one long swallow. He bounded from the high stool, in the direction of the door.
"Where you going, Terrance?" called Pa, from behind the bar.
"Rabbit shopping, on E-bay," Terrance's voice boomed, as the door swung closed in his wake.
In no time, the news of the bet spread far and wide. The parish practically hummed with excitement. When Friday evening arrived, Pa O'Conner's was packed from door to rafter. The bar was so busy, Pa had to send for his whole family to serve behind the counter. Nine o'clock came and went, there was still no sign of Terrance and the mystery rabbit. Ian had been keeping quiet all evening, but as the minutes ticked away, and it looked more like he wouldn’t have to honour the bet, his tongue got looser, helped along by the power of whiskey.
By the time half nine rolled by, Ian was boasting again. The man just couldn’t help himself.
"Terrance just didn't fancy losing a hundred Euro," said Ian, turning to face the crowd. He raised a glass, "To Snowball, the fastest rabbit this side of a Chinese take away."
"Don't go counting your chickens yet, Ian. Or should I say, rabbits," said a voice from the door. It was Terrance, beaming from ear to ear. Terrance made his way through the crowd with a large covered crate in his arms. A space was made for him at the counter, where he deposited his load.
Terrance said, "Pint please, Pa."
"Show us your rabbit," said Ian.
"Hold you flipping horses, let a man take a drink," said Terrance. Ian Barry was shuffling from foot to foot with eagerness. A creamy pint of Guinness was dropped on the counter, alongside the mystery box. Terrance lifted the pint to his lips, his Adam’s apple bobbed once, twice, three times, as half the pint vanished down his gullet.
"Ah, come on," said someone from the back of the crowd.
Terrance smiled and put the glass on the counter. He lifted the crate and put it at his feet. Removing the cover, he dipped his hands into the dark interior of the box. When Terrance stood up, he held the most enormous black bunny rabbit anyone had ever seen.
"That's not a rabbit!" cried Ian.
"Yes it is," said Terrance, with a snigger. "It's a Flemish Giant, and his name is Rommel."
"That is not fair, he is as big as a sheepdog," said Ian, his eyes bulging.
"No one said what breed he had to be. Rommel is a rabbit, which is all that counts," said Terrance.
Pandemonium broke out in the bar, people crowded close to get a better look at the giant in their midst. Half the bar held it was unfair, poor Snowball was tiny, in comparison to this yoke. The other half just wanted to see Ian Barry get the smug look wiped off his face. Through all the hubbub, Rommel sat quietly in Terrance's arms, occasionally licking spilled beer off the counter. Just before eleven, a young guy wandered over from the pool table, and slipped in beside Terrance. It was Smokey-Joe, the town pothead.
"Nice rabbit, Terrance," said Joe, rubbing the Rommel's big floppy ears. Rommel didn't flinch, "He seems very chilled out."
"He is, a bit," agreed Terrance, sounding more worried than proud.
"Is he fast?" asked Joe.
Terrance looked around to make sure no one was listening. He leaned in close to Joe, and whispered, "I don't know, I haven’t gotten him running yet."
"Did you try shouting at him or poking him?" asked Joe.
"Sure I did, but he just ignores me," Terrance said, letting his worry show again. "I’d hoped that Ian would chicken out, when he saw the size of him. Looks like I might end up losing €100, as well as having this useless lump eating me out of house and home."
"Say nothing yet, I might be able to get you something to liven him up," said Smokey-Joe, with wink.
"Slip Rommel a Micky-Finn?"
"Just call it a pep pill," said Joe, with a smile, while tapping the side of his nose.
Terrance smiled. All might not be lost.
The day of the 'Bring and Buy' arrived, and the parish hall was filled to bursting. Father Tom was amazed as the people continued to turn up. Jane, his housekeeper, was helping out with the sweet stand, when Father Tom lumbered over, weighed down with even more boxes of buns.
"Have you ever seen anything like it, Jane? What a crowd," said Father Tom, accidentally knocking against the table, as he wiggled his way behind it. Jane was trying to control the avalanche of chocolate bars, which Father Tom had started, but as normal, failed to notice.
"Would you believe that such generosity still exists, given the hard time people are having?" said Father Tom, dumping the boxes behind the table.
"Pardon?" asked Jane not quiet getting his meaning.
"All these people, coming to support the missions to Africa," said Father Tom.
"I think it might have more to do with Terrance McCarthy's giant rabbit, than the Missions, Father," said Jane.
"You must have heard about it, Father? Ian Barry and Terrance McCarthy have been betting on which of their rabbits will win the race, today," said Jane.
"Hum," said Father Tom. "Who’s favourite to win?"
"Snowball has home advantage, but Rommel is huge. You should see him, Father, he’s like a small sheep," said Jane.
"Rommel! It’s named after a German Tank Commander?" stuttered Father Tom.
"I don't know what it’s named after, but he’s one tank of a rabbit," Jane giggled. Just then, Father Tom spotted Terrance McCarthy at the back of the hall, talking to Smokey-Joe.
"Where the hell have you been? The race is starting in half an hour," said Terrance, as a wobbly Smokey-Joe came towards him.
"Sorry, man, it was a wild night," he said, rubbing the sleep out of his bloodshot eyes.
"Did you get the stuff?" snapped Terrance.
"Do you know how hard it is, to get performance enhancing drugs for a rabbit?" spat Smokey-Joe, clearly not the happiest, first thing in the morning, or in this case, the afternoon.
"Sorry, Joe, but did you?" asked Terrance, more pleasingly this time.
"This will do the job," said Joe, sliding a small packet of powder into Terrance's hand. "Just give the rabbit a little bit. Feck, put it away, here comes the priest."
"Afternoon, lads, can I have a word?"
"Sure, Father," said Terrance.
"I've been hearing that some bets have been placed on the outcome of the Derby, is that true?"
"I wouldn't call it betting exactly, Father, more like a friendly wager, between friends," said Terrance.
"You know, I have the odd flutter myself, but this is a church event, boys. Let’s keep it fun, okay?" said Father Tom. The “okay” at the end of that sentence was accompanied by a pat on the back, which left Smokey-Joe's eyes wobbling in his head. When Father Tom was making his way back toward the tea table, Smokey-Joe turned to Terrance, rubbing his shoulder, and said, "Father Tom would make a great bouncer, if he wasn't a priest."
Soon, it was time for the entrants to line up for the Derby. The extra-large box covering Rommel on the starting line, was drawing a lot of attention. There were about six kids lined up in the middle of the track, all hovering above their covered rabbits, waiting for the race to begin. Ian Barry, was at one end of the lineout, with Snowball in her pink coloured box, specially decorated for the occasion. Terrance was on the far end of the line, beside Sarah Harding. Sarah was a lovely five year old little girl, but not the brightest button in the world. She’d brought along her guinea pig, called Mr Snuffles. There had been valiant attempts by Father Tom to explain that, although Mr Snuffles was a lovely fella, he was not actually a rabbit and as such, could not enter the race. In the face of a crying five year old, Father Tom crumpled like a cheap suit, and Mr Snuffles was allowed to take part. While waiting for the whistle to blow, it became clear that something was wrong with Rommel.
Terrance was holding the box down with both hands, but still having great difficulty keeping the huge rabbit in check. The box was being beaten to and fro, by the rabbit trapped inside. A strange high pitch mewling came now and again, which was adding to the amazement of the crowd. On the far side of the starting line, Ian was actually looking pale with anxiety.
The compare took the stage.
"On your marks," he shouted. "Get ready, GO!"
All the boxes were raised, and the race began. Rommel shot into the air like a ballistic missile, completing a twist, before landing six feet in front of all the other rabbits. Most of them were still sitting exactly where their boxes had been.
"The gigantic Rommel takes an early lead, followed slowly by Snowball in second place, Fluffy and Thumper are neck and neck in third, with the rest of the field still in the starting blocks," said the compare. "Mr Snuffles seems to be making a nest for himself. Come on folks, cheer on your favourite."
The crowd began to cheer, and this got most of the furry critters moving. Even to the untrained eye, Rommel was not looking well. His ears were flattened all the way along his back, his eyes were huge and wild, and his sides were fluttering in and out rapidly, as the massive rabbit panted through exposed buck teeth. Most worrying of all, was the keening moan he was still making. Rommel took another huge leap into the air, then wildly ran in circles for a few seconds. He had nearly reached the winning line at the end of the track, when he decided to take a detour.
"It looks like it is all over, Folks. Snowball is trailing miles behind, this is Rommel's race to lose. Hold that thought - it looks like Rommel is going the wrong way. What is wrong with that rabbit?"
As Rommel barrelled back down the track, the rest of the rabbits scattered in terror. The fluffy white Snowball became the fixture of Rommel's attentions. The carnage that followed will go down in parish history, as a dark day, indeed. While the rest of the rabbits were scooped to safety by owners, Rommel and Snowball became an indistinguishable blur. Thankfully, Rommel turned out to be a lover, not a fighter.
"What’s the big rabbit doing, Mammy?" a little boy asked his red-faced mother.
"That big one is very tired, from all the hopping, so the white one is giving him a piggy back," came the cringing reply.
"The race seems to have taken a romantic twist folks," howled the compare over gales of laughter. "Many racers have been withdrawn for their own safety, but wait a minute. Here comes Mr Snuffles, making a break for the finish line. He is nearly there, Come on Mr Snuffles, COME ON!"
Mary Barry leapt into the track, to free Snowball from the loving embrace of Rommel.
"Get off her you brute!" she shouted, trying to dislodge him with the toe of her red stiletto. Rommel squealed at her, his eyes wild. He refused to be dislodged. When Snowball eventually made the break from Rommel's loving embrace, she was a changed rabbit, forever. Rommel was eventually restrained, and put back in his box. Mr Snuffles was announced the winner, the first ever guinea pig to receive the Bunny Derby Cup.
Smokey-Joe caught up with Terrance in the car park, "How much of that stuff did you give him?"
"Only a little bit, but it was having no effect, so I gave him a bit more," said Terrance.
"How much more?"
"All of it. What was it, anyway?"
"I couldn't find anything for rabbits. Everyone just laughed at me when I asked, so I got a bit of coke," Smokey-Joe said.
"You gave a rabbit cocaine?"
"Shush, for God sake, you're the one that got him as high as a kite," said Smokey-Joe.
Neither Ian, nor Terrance, ever lived down their rabbit’s public display of affection. The following year saw the greatest number of entrants for the Bunny Derby, ever. Nearly all of them were black and white. Snowball and Rommel looked on from the side-lines with parental pride.